COMMENTARY: Why community newspapers are essential | Bernardsville News Opinion Columns

This is a watershed moment for New Jersey Hills Media Group and we are both proud and excited to transition to nonprofit community ownership.

My brother Steve and I are the second generation in our family to run this newspaper group founded by our parents Cort and Nancy Parker in 1957.

Steve and I expanded the group from six newspapers in 1990 to the 14 newspapers and websites we have now. This is my 40th year here after working at Mount Vernon, Ohio, the Daily News and the Asbury Park Press and Steve’s 37th after a stint on Wall Street.

My son Alex, editor of the Madison Eagle, Chatham Courier and Florham Park Eagle, is third generation here and is also involved in what we do and why we do it.

A local newspaper is essential for the communities it serves. Sure, newspaper publishing is a business, but it’s also a community service business.

It’s a public duty, an obligation to provide fair, objective and insightful reporting, and over the years we’ve won hundreds of newspaper awards for doing just that.

For our weeklies, as for newspapers across the country, the past 20 years have been difficult as advertising revenue has migrated to the web and social media posts have usurped rational, responsible commentary and knowledge from the public.

Nearly 2,000 community newspapers across the country have closed in the past 15 years, and thousands more have been acquired by big corporations, eliminating the jobs of thousands of reporters who covered council meetings, promoted the community engagement and chronicled the lives of their communities.

Some 75 New Jersey weekly newspapers have closed since 2004, along with three daily newspapers.

The pandemic has wreaked even more havoc. About 37,000 workers at news organizations in the United States have been laid off, furloughed or had their wages cut.

Our transition to nonprofit status through our sale to the Corporation for New Jersey Local Media opens up an opportunity for sustainability and improvement as we transition to other platforms and avenues to improve the civic engagement, whether through webinars or more effective social media engagement.

Our essential role in these troubled times, both nationally and internationally, remains the same: to provide a full and unbiased explanation and documentation of the lives of our communities.

We are unique: We are New Jersey’s largest group of independent community newspapers.

New Jersey is also unique. Its 565 municipalities — including the 50 we cover — make big decisions affecting people’s lives and pocketbooks, from improving sidewalks to open spaces to property taxes.

In many states, these decisions are made by county governments, whose operational base may be miles away. Here in New Jersey, it might be a block away and you meet your mayor at the supermarket.

Local governments must not operate in obscurity and isolated from those who foot the bill, from those who voted for or against them, from those who live with the consequences of their decisions.

It is now fashionable to denigrate the press, a fact we have seen too often in despotic states – there is a reason Putin moved so quickly to shut down independent media after the invasion of Ukraine – but it also happens too often at the national level.

We’re chastised by Republicans who think we’re being too nice to Democrats and by Democrats who think we’re serving the GOP.

We can be taken to task on social media by those who have the freedom to say what they want, about whom they want, without any responsibility to check whether they are actually factually correct, let alone civilized.

These days, professional community journalism competes with a bored blogger on the street, or a news aggregator who sends salacious crime stories and other juicy but non-local headlines and passes them off as local news, or an alleged news provider who judges the merit of editorial copy by who pays for an ad.

This is not professional newsgathering.

We live in a beautiful area of ​​New Jersey where, for the most part, our community leaders truly reflect, represent and engage our citizens.

This requires effective communication. And study after study, a free and professional press creates and improves this quality of community life.

That doesn’t mean everything is perfect, of course. But knowledge is freedom and people have the right to know.

Our journalists are present at municipal assemblies where decisions are made that immediately affect you and where hired officials paid by your taxes report to elected officials on the actions of the community and, of course, their own.

For example, would the residents of Bernards Township have recently known about a murder attempt in town if a reporter had not covered the meeting and listened to the police chief’s report to the township committee? I doubt. Or what about the residents of East Hanover learning that a former office building could now house 256 homes?

This information sharing happens here every week, 50 times with every city we cover.

There is no substitute for trustworthy professional journalism in a functioning democracy. Without it, decisions are made without public knowledge, corruption grows, vested interests work their way behind closed doors, and fewer and fewer people will bother to vote as trust in government recedes. .

Citizens need information for democracy to flourish. This is why freedom of the press was enshrined in the first amendment to the Constitution.

And when citizens get that information — as shown in research studies comparing communities with newspapers to those without — they’re more likely to vote, and vote wisely.

So thank you to everyone who wrote checks, big and small, for making this nonprofit journalism effort a reality.

We are one of the first community newspaper groups to become non-profit owners, which is increasingly a national trend for dailies and weeklies.

Your community and democracy itself thank you.